Enlighten your senses with Wild Bamboo-Dew Tea

On expanding my tea adventures, I found myself at Gucheungam ‘Kuchŭng-am” Hermitage, meaning ”Nine Level”, referring to a pagoda of nine stories.

This is the monk’s quarters at Hwaeomsa, a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, where the pillars are made from dead quince trees and are completely unadorned and a stone lantern sits in the foreground.I came here on a tea and temple tour, to experience temple life and make fresh ‘Bamboo-Dew’ green and fermented tea from the Hermitages’ very own tea plantation, where the monks grow their own tea plants on the slopes overlooking the monastery. A little further is Yeongiam Hermitage, the site where Hwaeomsa Temple stands. It has a 13 metre high statue of Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Great Wisdom, the chief of the bodhisattvas.

The tea field around the hermitage is completely natural, grown in the shade of mountainside trees, without any human interference. We call it ‘bamboo-dew tea’ because it grows among the bamboos. Ordinary tea-fields clear away the trees in order to maximis e the yield. But the tea at the Kuch’ŭng-am is very different. The quantity harvested is small, while the leaves are soft and large. Our aim is to take pure natural leaves that have grown in a natural environment watered by the surrounding trees, fertilised by their falling leaves and not by people trying to increase the amount of tea they produce. Historically speaking, the tea growing wild here may well derive from the first tea planted in Korea, in the valleys around Hwaŏm-sa, as is suggested by the representation in the three-storied Four-Lion Pagoda (National Treasure No. 35) above the temple, of the Venerable Master Yŏn’gi, the founder in 543-4 of Yŏngok-sa, Hwaŏm-sa, offering tea to his mother. Thus the tea of Kuch’ŭng-am is carefully made using Chiri-san tea leaves with their long centuries of history, following the strict methods inherited from the monks of long ago. (Hwaŏm-sa’s history of tea-making goes back centuries. There is a record that in the 8th century the ambassador Taeryŏm brought back tea seeds from Tang China which the king ordered to be planted in Chiri-san but tea was growing at Hwaŏm-sa before that.)

Once tender leaves begin to grow in April or May, the topmost bud two leaves must be plucked gently without wounding the bush, so that healthy leaves will grow there again the following year. The plucking must be done by hand, one bud at a time. Then, parching the leaves in a very hot cauldron. In this process, the most important thing is that the leaves must not scorch or burn, but must be thoroughly parched. If the temperature is too low, the cells are not sufficiently impacted, then the leaves oxidize and turn red. The initial parching lasts some 7-8 minutes in a cauldron heated to 300-350 degrees. The leaves must be stirred constantly to keep them from burning. The body really starts to heat up after a 30second round (which feels more like 10minutes), and we continually take it in turn to carefully and constantly turn the leaves under the guidance of the head Monk. The head Monk oversees every step of the process. After this, we rub the leaves on a straw mat or in a wicker basket in order to squeeze out the moisture. If the leaves are thoroughly rubbed, the tea will be clear when brewed; if they are not rubbed enough, the brew will be murky. After parching and rubbing comes the final drying process.

The moisture within every portion of the leaves must be drawn out and the cells thoroughly crushed in order to obtain a good brew. Adequate pressure and time are needed in this process, which usually takes 10-15 minutes, or should I say, much, much longer for us beginners. After rubbing, the leaves must be teased apart to avoid clumping. They are then returned to a rather cooler cauldron briefly, and the process of rubbing is then repeated, nine times. The leaves must be sufficiently well rubbed, bruised and rolled if they are to release their full flavour. The result of this is Kuch’ŭng-am’s famous Bamboo-dew green tea.

In recent years, increasing numbers of tea-makers in Korea have begun producing various kinds of oxidised tea (paryo-cha) in addition to the more traditional green tea / roasted tea (deokeum-cha). This is perhaps in part because many people prefer to drink a variety of teas, not always green tea, and also because the drying of paryo-cha is simpler. The basic process varies considerably from one maker to another but the paryo-cha I saw being produced at Gucheung-am hermitage is probably as characteristic as any.

First, freshly picked leaves are spread thinly on trays that are placed away from direct sunlight and left to wilt for 24 hours. Then, clumps of the wilted leaves are rubbed vigorously on rough straw mats for a considerable period, bruising the leaves and driving out a proportion of the juices. A team of 6-8 people, mainly ‘grannies’, including the head Monks’ mother, may pass the increasingly moist masses of leaves from one to another, each rubbing them for a few minutes in turn. The entire batch takes about 2 hours to rub fully. Much of the moisture is absorbed into the mat. By the end of the circuit the leaves are moist, brownish and massed together. The rubbed leaves are placed in large pots and allowed to go on oxidizing and fermenting for a further 24 hours. A layer of dry rice-straw at the bottom allows the tea to breathe. The leaves are then separated and spread very thinly on paper on a really well-heated Korean-style floor (40 degrees C) to dry. The dried leaves are returned to the large pot for another day or two before being packed. Some makers keep them in closed pots for several months before packing. The resulting tea yields a reddish brew, sweet and fragrant to the taste, unlike Chinese Oolongs except perhaps the Taiwanese Oriental Beauty, closer to light red tea. It is ‘warming’ to the body where green tea is ‘cooling’ in its effect. This labour intensive process takes a good 2-3 days for a very small batch. However, the experience and hospitality of the hermitage really does set it apart from a lot of small producers in the area. A very big thank you to #HippieKorea and #SonjaGleeson for an amazing experience

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